Bible Study | November 1, 2022

Wisdom in the church

Photo from National Youth Conference 2022 by Chris Brumbaugh-Cayford

Acts 19; Ephesians 1:15-23

News of the Ephesians’ faithfulness has made its way to Paul, and has likewise drawn Paul’s praise. The Ephesians have given every indication that the faith that had been planted in them has taken root and continues to grow. For this reason, Paul is full of thanksgiving. However, Paul also wants the Ephesians to understand that their faith is not just of their own effort; it is God’s blessing made manifest in them. And so, their faithfulness is credited to God’s great power.

While the faith of the Ephesians is worthy of praise, Paul also hopes that through the power of intercessory prayer their relationship with God will only deepen. As they mature in faith, Paul prays for them to receive a spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that they can more fully live into the inheritance they have received in Christ. Such confidence in their future inheritance will enable them to discern what Christ is calling the

Spirit of wisdom and revelation

A common theme in Pauline writing discusses “this age and the age to come” (there’s a similar phrase in Ephesians 1:21). Each of these ages has specific characteristics—this age is categorized by sin and death, while the age to come is categorized by redemption and life.

In Jesus, Paul recognizes that these two ages are blending together. The resurrection of Jesus Christ brought a glimpse of the coming age into the current one. Thus, because of Jesus Christ, we live with one foot in this age and one in the age to come. And a spirit of wisdom is required to live in this inbetween time.

When I think of someone who is wise, it is not typically someone who is book-smart or can answer obscure trivia. People with these abilities are certainly knowledgeable, but wise people can see the world around them in a different way. That is not to say they are like a wise sage that has obtained a different vantage point by sitting atop a mountain separated from the brokenness of the world. A truly wise person is aware of a deeper reality than one can see with their eyes, even while they are actively in touch with all that’s going on around them.

Therefore, Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians is not that they withdraw to the heavenly places just because this will be their inheritance as adopted children of God. Paul wants the Ephesians to discern how to live now in light of their future inheritance. And this will require a “spirit of wisdom and revelation,” gifts that come from above (v. 17).

Wise ones learn how to balance living in a world where death and sin still have a hold on us, while at the same time knowing that Christ is seated at God’s right hand, having conquered death and sin. Wisdom requires that we see with more than just our physical eyes at times—seeing with spiritual eyes of hope, knowing that the age to come is already working to defeat the broken realities of this one.

The saints

Paul uses the word “saints” twice in this section of his letter (vv. 15, 18). So, who are the saints and what does Paul mean by this word? When we hear the word “saints” we often think about the Roman Catholic practice of venerating specific mothers and fathers of the faith who have proven to be exceptionally faithful, but that is not quite what Paul means here.

The Greek word translated as “saints” in the NRSV is hagios, which means “holy ones.” This is the same word used in the name Holy Spirit, but in this case it does not refer to a member of the Trinity. Paul is not referring to certain persons who are exceptionally holy (saints) and more worthy of our veneration. All believers are “holy ones,” set apart by their faith in Jesus Christ.

Paul praises the Ephesians for the deep love they have displayed toward the saints, but Paul also makes sure to place the Ephesians among the saints. The Ephesians will receive the same inheritance as the holy ones they have loved and cared for because of what they share in common, a commitment to and belief in Jesus Christ. While we often think of saints as extraordinary examples, we need not look further than our own congregation to find them. For the church is the body of Christ, and through Christ, the church is filled with holy ones (v. 23).

The church

While we may miss this in our English translation, all the references to “you” in this section of scripture are plural. Paul is not praying that one person will receive wisdom, or that God would reveal something important to one person. The spirit of wisdom and revelation Paul prays for is meant for the community gathered in Christ’s name. It is a relational spirit that first comes from a growing relationship with God, and can only be fully understood in community.

The concept of community has been an important one for Brethren. The use of the German word Gemeinschaft marked the importance of communal living for early Brethren. This word is hard to translate with a single English word. For the early Brethren, the word expressed “the intimate sense of unity that exists when people share commitments to live the love of Jesus in community” (Dale Brown, Another Way of Believing: A Brethren Theology, p. 35).

This has not only been important to Brethren in theory but also shaped the way we organize ourselves to discern God’s will. The best example of this is Annual Conference, which is the highest authority in the Church of the Brethren. The delegates are individuals from the various Church of the Brethren congregations, who then come together to form a “deliberative body under the guidance of the Holy Spirit” ( Brethren expect that when we come together to discern the will of God, God will in fact show up to guide us.

While Brethren have placed a high importance on community, we must be careful not to idealize the concept, making it something it cannot be. While we believe that the church is the body of Christ, made up of holy ones, we also accept that it is made up of humans. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote that the “Christian community is not an ideal, but a divine community.” By this he meant that the Christian community would not be perfect, but it will be holy. Those who come to church expecting perfection will be quickly disappointed. But those who come expecting to encounter the Divine will find Christ in the midst of them (Matthew 18:20).

This is vital theology for Brethren to reclaim, especially as individuals and groups are choosing to leave our denomination because it is imperfect. Brethren discern the Holy Spirit together, even when diverse interpretations are present, because there is a unity that exists when people share commitments to live the love of Jesus in community. God is made known to us and wisdom is revealed in our togetherness. It may not be ideal, but it is holy.

Audrey Hollenberg-Duffey is co-pastor with her husband, Tim, of Oakton Church of the Brethren in Vienna, Virginia.